Sabbath is a spiritual discipline that has been surrounded by much debate throughout the church’s history. Does it apply to believers today or not? Is it worth following, or is it an oppressive rule? As we discuss this topic in our Spiritual Disciplines series, I argue that Sabbath is not a command for believers to follow today, but it can be a very helpful discipline and guideline to practice elements of in our lives today.
The Old Testament teaches that Sabbath is a mandatory day of rest each week for the people of Israel. It has its foundations in the pattern that God set by resting on the seventh day of creation, after spending the first six days doing the work of creation (Genesis 1:1–2:4). When the Lord gives the Law to Moses and Israel at Mt. Sinai, he commands them all to do no work on the seventh day in remembrance of this pattern from creation (Exodus 20:8–11). First and foremost, practicing Sabbath for Israel was a way to worship God and imitate his pattern for creation. The rest they practiced both benefitted their health to take a break from work, but was also an opportunity to worship the Lord by enjoying his creation and the fruit of their work the other six days, just as God did. He did not need to rest from working because he was tired—he is infinitely powerful and cannot be exhausted. Rather, he rested from his work to enjoy what he had done. Israel was to do the same.
Interestingly, the Sabbath command is given again in Deuteronomy, to the next generation of Israelites who were about to enter the Promised Land (remember, the adults who came out of Egypt were not permitted to enter the Land because of their rebellion, so those who entered were only kids or not even born when the Law was first given). When Moses gives the Law again (Deuteronomy means “Second Law”), he gives the first part of the command almost exactly how it was seen in Exodus 20, but the motivation is different. Here, the reason is assumed to be rooted in creation, but also expanded to observing the Sabbath as a way to remember that their people once were slaves, but God delivered them with a mighty hand (Deuteronomy 5:15). In this mindset, observing Sabbath was breaking free from the way of slavery which forced them to work every day, and to remember that the Lord had better plans for them.
When we move to the New Testament, though, we see that the early church disagreed on the necessity of Sabbath observance, but ultimately it was decided that it is not required. In Romans, we see Paul addressing the church in Rome about the differences that Jewish and Gentile believers were encountering, and he says, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord” (Romans 14:5–6a). Similarly, Paul urges the Colossian church to let no one pass judgment about their views on Sabbath (Colossians 2:16). In Christ, the Sabbath Law was not required, but if you felt convicted to observe it, you should follow those convictions and observe it in honor and worship of the Lord!
While Sabbath is not a requirement for New Testament believers, it can still be beneficial to follow. After all, God rooted this pattern in creation for a reason. In the Gospels, we see Jesus and his disciples walking through a field on the Sabbath, and some of his hungry disciples picked some food as they were passing through, sending the Pharisees into a frenzy. When they confront Jesus about this “violation,” Jesus exhorts them saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In short, the Sabbath is a law given because it benefits people, but people don’t have to be ruled by the law, breaking their backs to avoid even coming close to breaking it. Sabbath was made for man, though. In Matthew, Jesus tells his followers that all who come to him can find rest (Matthew 11:28–30). While not talking about Sabbath specifically, we see that God’s desire is for his people to experience the rest that he created us for, and which can only be found in him. While Sabbath is not a command we must follow, it is a pattern that could benefit us by helping us slow down, breaking free from the non-stop pace of the world, and finding our rest and worship in him.
This goes against the grain of the entire world, so it can be hard to implement. But here are a few things to try if you decide to take the plunge. First, rest from work. One of my favorite authors recently says that his question for Sabbath is, “Is this rest and worship?” If the answer to ether question is no, he waits to do it on one of the other six days of the week. Taking a break from the things we do the rest of the week helps us worship God and enjoy all we have worked for. Second, Limit or cut out screen time. Watching TV, playing games, and scrolling online can be relaxing, but they rarely actually bring rest to our souls. They can often even make us more weary and exhausted. Save those things for the rest of the week, and seek true rest apart from what the world is pumping into our brains. Third, enjoy what God has given you. God rested on the seventh day to enjoy what he had just created. Sabbath for us can be a day to celebrate with good food, to enjoy the yards we’ve been maintaining, or to go out into Creation and enjoy God’s beauty. Finally, practice this as a family. This is a discipline that’s hard to do alone, so take steps as a family to try to experiment with this together!
Sarah and I have been trying (though not always successfully), and it has been so good for us! We definitely recommend experimenting with this different type of rest as a way to recover from the week behind you, prepare for the week ahead of you, and enjoy and worship the God whom we serve!